Belgium, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) “It’s the economy, stupid!” is a catchphrase most of us interested in politics must have heard or used in heated discussions at one time or another. Wikipedia reminds us that it was coined by James Carville in 1992 when he served as strategist in Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign. Clinton’s campaign used the prevailing recession in the US at the time to successfully unseat incumbent President George H.W. Bush senior.
Today, as the invasion of Ukraine by Russia brings back war, tragedy and human suffering to the doorstep of EU and NATO countries, Europeans need to fall back on their ability and capacity to design relations between themselves and with the rest of the world. Free trade, open borders, stable international rules that countries adhered to flourished because there was a common interest in sustaining them. Now it looks as if raw power counts again.
In October last year, former EC official and now Associate Director and Head of the Europe’s political economy programme at the Brussels-based European Policy Centre (EPC) think tank, Georg Riekeles cited the renewed importance of raw power in an interview with the NRC Daily in the Netherlands. Then in March this year, citing Europe’s need to prepare for a wartime economy, he and his collaborator Frederico Mollet expressed an even more outspoken view.
According to their analysis: “Pre-war, the EU was settling into consensus on a growth strategy defined by green and digital modernization…in response to geopolitical and technological competition, and a reform of its fiscal rules to provide space for investment. Europe is now plunging into a precarious and uncertain environment where significant security pressures and economic trade-offs signal features of a wartime economy. Faced with the immediate economic shock, pressure to fund new expenditures, and a potential reconfiguration of the global economic system, the EU’s leaders must double down on EU solidarity mechanisms.”
Design thinking and transforming talk into the design of effective action must now become a central concern for European leaders. Questions arise about how to build more resilience into the European model of community, about how to temper critical economic interdependencies towards non-EU and non-European Economic Area (EEA) countries. At such short notice, in so short a timeframe, can it cope with the surge in energy prices, rising commodity prices, the need to accommodate perhaps the largest refugee flow since the Second World War? Can it reinvest in defence and meet other unprecedented investment needs, while weaponising trade in such a way that the use of sanctions becomes a foreign policy tool? The questions are numerous. How to respond to calls for good policy design to help avoid duplication and increased expenditures in greening and digitising the economy, when striving to maintain household purchasing power and most certainly when investing in defence and security is a challenge.
Nobel prizewinner Herbert.A. Simon was among those who pioneered the concept of design thinking in politics. In his book, “The Sciences of the Artificial”, he wrote: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state.”
For Simon, design was “to devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” This is precisely what is at the heart of recent discussions in EU institutions. For example, it is explicitly spelled out in the Strategic Compass that was endorsed by the leaders in their most recent Council meeting in Brussels. In his blog and tweets, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell Fontelles clearly states that there is no rhetoric saying that Europe is in danger. For him, the special significance of the Compass is that it offers a plan for a “real step change in EU security and defence” since it literally encompasses proposals for actions complete with clear timelines. He also proclaims that what comes next is, as he terms it, “implementation, implementation, implementation!” Act, Secure, Invest, Partner are the keywords he cites in support of this approach.
As the influential US magazine, Defense News, commented, “It formalizes several initiatives aimed at breathing operational nimbleness into an institution built on lengthy decision-making processes — albeit all in due time. For example member states want to hammer out by 2023 the practical modalities for forming mini coalitions of the willing, consisting of subsets of members that would deploy to hot spots on behalf of the bloc and under EU Council oversight. Officials have long eyed mechanisms hiding in plain sight in Article 44 of the EU Treaty as a justification for short-circuiting the unanimous consent principle during crises” — (see “EU Nations circle the wagons” by Sebastian Sprenger). According to the item on security and defence in the Summit conclusions, there seems to be a real opportunity and place for implementation. At this moment, the dice are rolling, as Pascal Boniface from the French IRIS institute puts it. However, it remains an open question whether implementation of the Compass will reveal the emergence of a “Power Europe” or a Europe that becomes increasingly dependent on the US. Will there be a new bipolarity between the Russians and the Chinese on the one side and the West on the other? Can the multipolarity find a stable basis? It may be too early to say but what is certain is that the Ukrainian war signifies an important turning point in international relations and how they are shaped and designed.
The outcome of the discussions on energy may yet make us hope that our leaders are open to designing a real European policy. Their discussions reportedly have been well structured and constructive at a time when all 27 leaders have been subject to the pressure of public opinion. After rounds of circulating amendments to initial texts, intense debates with strong geopolitical angles interlinked with the various views on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, some initial positions apparently began to shift and a willingness to adjust and meet half way began to emerge. Examples include the work achieved on the voluntary common purchase of gas, LNG and hydrogen, making optimal use of the collective political and market weight of the EU and its member states to reduce price volatility in negotiations plus a request that the Commission work with the industry to urgently examine the option of a gas price cap.
Rightfully, the leaders of the EU point to the success of the recent synchronisation of the Ukrainian and Moldovan electricity grids with those of the EU. They highlighted this as a remarkable achievement that gives the EU the possibility of committing to uninterrupted electricity and gas flows to Ukraine. Research papers published by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) last December on the geopolitics of electricity offer a significant insight into the important role Europe can and does play in this vital field.
A key word that has quickly (re)gained eminence in today’s world is “geopolitics”. Undoubtedly, we could readily replace the word economy in the Clinton era catchphrase by substituting the word geopolitics. But geopolitics is in fact the way we design, give form to and try to master the interaction among states, communities and individuals, taking stock of the analytical tools offered by human and physical geography. This responds quite well to the Herbert A. Simon’s definition of design cited earlier in this article insofar as it helps shape politics in terms of how power is organised within the context of governance. Civilizations are about how we give form to our daily existence all together as a group. Looking back through the history of civilisations we can see the importance Europeans and westerners have ascribed to the rule of law, to human rights, to personality factors as key means of measuring the reality of the good and the bad. Even if this has not always been respected in practice, it remains a beacon for action.
The approach of the Chinese and Russian leadership remains in essence Marxist-Leninist as it developed during their respective histories, insofar as they see the political battle as being one between social classes and between nations within the global society. This explains why they value their sovereignty so much. It also generates confusion and a lack of understanding when it comes to perceptions of how European politics are designed, especially with regard to the EU, and how Europeans acquire resilience in the face of catastrophic situations and conflicts such as we are now living through. For the Chinese and Russians, competition between individuals remains secondary to that between groups, which is their main problem with democracy as we practice it in the
West. They also tend to neglect the possibility of conflict between what citizens expect and what their rulers decide. When they do allow some form of free expression and participation, it is mostly suffused rhetoric reflecting conflict between the dominated classes and the ruling classes, whereas in Europe and the West, citizenship and democracy, even in the most nationalistic parties, is central to politics. To Riekeles and Mollet, the EU’s governance model, created for market integration, is not adept at delivering economic and military security. This view may soften, given the EU’s key role when it comes to mobilising efforts to counter Russia’s aggression and to stand by the Ukrainians, offering the essential resources and coordination to help Ukraine in a practical fashion.
In a way we could consider all those who were there as the initial important steps were being taken in European integration as political designers, beginning with Jean Monnet. We could show the importance he placed on the dynamics of balance sheets, which to him proved to be milestones in his work to strengthen the Allied fleets of 1916, air forces in 1940, of Allied and Axis military power in 1942, of the French economy in 1945 and of the six-nation European Community in 1950. Each time, the need for appropriate action became obvious once the balance sheet was drawn up. The visual design in this was important drawing as it did on principles and tools common to design.
The principles of connection, integrity and simplicity are as important to design as its basic tools of looking, drawing, prototyping, testing and experiencing. In his design bible, “The nature and Aesthetics of Design”, the famous English designer David Pye describes it as the business of ensuring you get the change you want along with all the others which you don’t want. ( ) Understanding the nature of results is the key to an understanding of the nature of design, where design is the process of applying declarations and thoughts in practice. Politicians: do not invest further in spin doctors but instead develop your skills in design thinking! Give a place to the skills and competences of designers in your staff. Several important European Design Schools such as the Eindhoven Design Academy give ample attention to design thinking and offer access to valuable people with practical skills.